The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 97: First Blood

On the night that Marfach was received by the Mouth of Sauron in the Black Pavilion, Aragorn and his Army of the West prepared to make camp for what most of his followers believed was the last time.

The final day of their march had been bitterly cold, the sun never showing his face. They had passed through a land devoid of trees and all growing things, but scarred with deep ravines and rocky hills, so that the Captains kept scouts continually ranging before the main body of troops, searching for ambushes.

But no sign at all of the enemy was found; the land was utterly deserted.
‘They are calling back behind their walls every orc and goblin, every foul beast under the command of the Eye, to muster against us in the greatest force possible!’ said Aragorn to Gandalf with a grim, set face.

Gandalf nodded in silence. He doubted not that Sauron was keeping his armies for one great strike against the alliance, but although he wished the Dark Lord to know of their presence he did not want to get too close to his realm. So on Gandalf’s advice, the army did not make directly to the Black Gates, but swung North West, approaching the Morannon by the old road from the Marshes, just as Frodo, Sam and Gollum had also come at the Gates on their ultimately abandoned attempt to enter Mordor by the front door.

Unlike the Ringbearer and his companions, however, Aragorn had no wish to keep his presence secret; at every crossroad on that bleak trail he ordered the trumpets to be sounded and the heralds to cry the names and titles of the lords of the West. But only the cold wind keening over the bare poisoned land gave back any reply.
‘Don’t be fooled!’ growled Gimli to Legolas ‘I can feel eyes on me all the time!’
‘Only they are not human eyes..’ said the Elf quietly.

The hidden sun went down with ominous rapidity and the night set in even colder than the day. Aragorn had barely time to find a suitably sheltered and secure place for the army to camp before a darkness more profound than any he had ever seen settled on the land.

Fearing the night might bring enemies invisible during the day, Aragorn ordered what meagre fuel that could be gathered, dead wood and brush, to be raked into great piles on the perimeter of the camp and lit, and watches were set. All during that long night shapes, huge and horrible, loomed up just beyond the reach of the firelight, then faded back into the dark. Overhead the waning moon struggled to break through the black clouds, and appeared at last dimly, like a dead, white face under the murky waters of a swamp.

Within the camp men lit fires, but there was little cheer around them. The army was mostly silent, sunk in sombre thought, trying to take what rest it could. Aragorn however had other things than sleep on his mind, and he sent for Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond.

When the two tall, dark-haired Elves found the King, he had taken off his richly decorated armour and the crowned helm of Anarion that he wore when he rode at the head of the army. He sat alone, gazing pensively into a small fire and wearing just his old red homespun shirt and leather jerkin. Seeing the two Elves approach he sprang up and embraced each of them in turn.
‘Welcome, Elrohir and Elladan, my brothers!’ he cried. ’It warms my heart to see you!’

The two Elves bore themselves proudly in armour of mithril and gold which clove to their limbs like fine cloth, and the surcoat of one of the brothers was of deep blue and silver and that of the other was embroidered with a pattern of a golden sun and moon. Yet they accepted Aragorn’s greeting gladly, like old friends

Aragorn bade the two sit and gave them cups of the thin bitter wine that was the usual fare of the army on the march. They accepted it with solemn bows and drank as if it was the best vintage that the cellars of Rivendell could offer.

After they had drunk, Aragorn said;
‘Sons of Elrond Half-Elven, Princes of Imladris and dear friends of my youth, thank you for accompanying the Army of the West on its march! You do us great honour.’
Elladan inclined his head with a smile.
‘It is we who are honoured, lord King. What is it that you desire of us?’
Aragorn was smiling.
‘First...’ he said ‘..I wish to thank you. I know there was no compulsion on you to fight for Gondor, yet it means more than half that kingdom that Elves should choose to fight alongside all that is left of Numenor.’
The two princes nodded, obviously pleased at the king’s words. Aragorn went on;
‘It is a joy to me too, that the friends of my youth in Imladris stand with me now at what must be my greatest, and probably my last test. It matters too that the brothers of she who means more to me than any kingdom are with me at this hour.’

Aragorn paused, and took a draught of the bitter wine. Elrohir glanced at his brother and spoke;

‘Dunedain, it is no secret that our father has looked sternly on you and your ambitions since you began your suit for our sister Arwen’s hand. But we want only her happiness, and in our hearts we know that can only lie with you, so we have ever urged your cause’

Aragorn went to express his thanks, but Elrohir raised a hand to stop him.
‘We do not speak just out of politeness or courtesy. To be frank, when you first came to Imladris, my brother and I were prepared to keep our distance from you. We are princes, but you were of the line royal of Arnor, even if you were but a mortal, and possessed of nothing but a few heirlooms. Your kingdom too was in eclipse because of the pride and weakness of Men. But still, what a kingdom! Arnor, the best of Numenor.

We looked for reasons to dislike you. But Aragorn, you gave us none. Never has man or Elf had so worthy a companion, so honourable a comrade and so loyal a friend. We both believe it is our duty to fight against Mordor. But more than that, we feel it is our place to be with our old friend in his last and great trial...’

The Elf prince stopped speaking, and in the firelight tears glistened in Aragorn’s eyes. He bowed his head in silence. Then he looked up and said;
‘Friends and princes, tomorrow is the last battle. If you are in agreement, it is my desire that you take command of The Grey Company, my Rangers of the North, while I lead the army of Gondor. The Grey Company are known to you, and have accompanied you here from Imladris...’
The princes nodded. Then Elladan asked;
‘What of the Black Company?’

Aragon frowned. Although the Black Company, like the Grey Company, were Rangers of the North, they had travelled a dark road through many misfortunes since they left their homeland and their hearts burned for vengeance. The rest of the army regarded them with suspicion, especially the Rohirrim, whose best war horses they had stolen. Their leader, Callanach, was tainted by his friendship with the creature Marfach and there were among the company Galadhrim who had fought at Helm’s Deep, Elves of great courage and fighting skills but stern and silent and bound by oath to the Rangers of the Black Banner.

What was even more to the point, the Black Company, as everyone knew, was unlucky. Their leadership might be seen as a curse not an honour.
‘I will consult with Eomer’ Aragorn replied at last. ‘It is known that the Black Company fought for Prince Theodred at the Battle of the Fords. In chivalry at least that gives Eomer as King of Rohan the right to claim their allegiance in war...’
If he is brave or foolish enough to claim it, thought Aragorn to himself.

By another campfire Peregrin Took struggled to fall asleep. Although tired after the long day’s ride on Eomer’s restless great warhorse, the hobbit’s mind was too active to let him rest. He thought of the coming battle and he was afraid.
‘Why am I here anyway?’ he thought as he tossed and turned. ‘what on earth will I do in a big battle?’

Just then as if hearing his question a gruff, familiar voice spoke up beside;
‘Still awake, Master Took? With a hobbit, that can only be for one reason; starvation!’

Pippin cast off his blanket and sat up grinning with pleasure. Gimli stood beside him along with Legolas, and the Dwarf held a steaming bowl of stew.

‘It isn’t much, but there are taters in it, and some wee bird told me hobbits dearly love taters!’
‘Oh yes we do!’ cried Pip, and as the others settled down by the fire the hobbit made short work of the bowl’s contents. While the hobbit mopped up the last drops of gravy with a barley bannock Gimli said;

‘We saw you were on your own and we thought you might appreciate some company!’
‘Yes, I would, very much.‘ said Pippin with a look of relief on his face. ‘I was with Gandalf – he said to keep close – but he went off to consult with the captains ages ago and I had begun to think I would spend the night all on my own!’

Gimli snorted ‘Typical wizard tricks! They tell you to stick to them then they disappear. What do you say to a bit of pipeweed?’
‘You have pipeweed! Wonderful!’ cried Pippin eagerly.

He had his pipe in his soldier’s pack, but had long ago run out of his small store of Old Toby. Gimli gave him a generous share from his own pouch and the two fell to puffing away happily while Legolas lay down beside them and gazed steadily into the fire, his bright eyes watering slightly in the pipesmoke. After a while Peregrin took the pipe out of his mouth and ventured;
‘I feel out of place here, old friends. And...well, truth to be told, I am afraid of making a mess of things tomorrow’
‘A mess?’ said Gimli. Looking round with raised eyebrows. ‘I would say we are in as big mess as we can be in, far beyond anything a hobbit could do to make any worse.’

Pip did not look comforted.
‘I’ve a talent for always making bad things worse’ he said, thinking about the well incident in Moria.
‘And I do miss Merry.’ He said in a small voice. ‘And I forget just why I was brought along. Gandalf said I should be given a chance to equal Merry’s feat of smiting the Nazgul, but I was not aware we were in a race for glory!’

Gimli listened in silence, puffing slowly on his pipe. Legolas gazed still into the fire, then at last he said;
‘No, Gandalf did not mean glory, Peregrin. Look around you; all the free peoples of Middle Earth are represented in this army. If we triumph tomorrow, that victory will belong to all the races who fought here. Even if those people do not know the battle is taking place. Your presence will win them that right. There is no need for deeds of glory; just being here is enough.’

Gimli nodded slowly. Pippin looked up and the old twinkle was back in his eye;
‘You mean all those Bolgers and Boffins and Bracegirdles, who are even now downing their ale unawares in the Green Dragon, will have a share in the future of Middle Earth, just because I am here?’
Legolas knit his brows.
‘Sort of..’ he replied, while Gimli suppressed a grin.

In another part of the camp the Black Company settled down to take their rest in a better mood than they had enjoyed for a long time, on account of the return from the dead of their former captain Crionna. On the eve of their greatest battle it seemed a good omen as well as a stroke of almost incredible good fortune that their most beloved leader should have been miraculously returned to them.

The Galadhrim Elves too, who had joined the Company after Crionna was lost, were immediately at ease with this tall Ranger of the North who so much resembled one of their own with his long golden hair and fair Elf-like face. He spoke Elvish with grace and ease, as he had like Aragorn received part of his upbringing in Rivendell. His presence brought the Elves and Men of The Black Company closer together, after their friendship had been strained by the defection of the Elf Dearfa and his abandonment of the Ranger Seolta to orcs.

Assembled around a great fire, all the Company sat waiting eagerly for Crionna to recount how he had escaped from the carnage of the Battle of The Fords. Crionna told the story in detail, from that moment when a charge of Haradrim cavalry had separated him from his comrades, and he had been wounded and left for dead on the same battlefield that had claimed the life of Prince Theodred.

But then Crionna paused; in telling his tale in Minas Tirith to the woman ranger Dian, Crionna had made the mistake of describing how he had been rescued by the Ents Elmfoot and Ashwing, on the orders of Gandalf. They had borne him away to their haunt deep in the forest where they had plied their great healing powers and had saved his life. Dian had laughed at him, and henceforth Crionna did not mention the talking trees in his account of his survival. But now he was among his own men, among friends. He told the whole story, right to where he fled a Minas Tirith in fear of its own Steward.

When he had finished, a silence fell on the company, broken only by the crackling of the firewood. At last the giant Ranger Teagar said
‘Trees that talk, Crionna? You did not by chance receive a blow on the head amongst your other wounds? For this sounds like a fever-dream’

The youngster Fior suppressed a grin. The other Rangers looked studiously serious. Callanach shot a baffled look at Liofa, who winked. At last the leader of the Galadhrim, Rosc, got to his feet, the firelight glinting red on his golden armour. He bowed to Crionna and said;

‘In all my long ages of life I have never been honoured by even one glimpse of the Ents, tree shepherds and fathers of the green woods, far less by a meeting with them and a chance to converse and learn of their ancient lore! We the Elves of the Golden Wood honour you, Crionna and give you in addition to your other titles the name of Crannara, which means, Beloved of the Forest.’

Rosc bowed again and Crionna scrambled to his feet to reply with his own startled obeisance. His companion Rangers shook themselves out of their stupor of surprise to also stand and bow. As everyone settled back down by the fire Liofa whispered to Callanach
‘Well that settles the question of the existence of Talking Trees...’

Beside young Fior the ranger An Bruadair, The Dreamer, listened with interest. The path that Crionna had followed after being separated from the Black Company was one that, in normal circumstances, he might have been able to perceive in dreams. But since he had been warned that any further visions would bring him death, An Bruadair had striven to close his mind to dreams. He fought off sleep until the very last, utterly exhausted moment, then fell into utter oblivion. He had at last lost his fear of sleep, and when the Black Company wrapped themselves in their cloaks and lay down to rest, he did so too and fell at once into a deep sleep.

Almost at once he dreamed. He was standing in Lothlorien and it was night. Only there the stars shone clear as diamonds and there was no evil fog. It was cool but not cold, and the scent of moss and mallorn blossom sweetened the air.

An Bruadair knew it was a dream, and he knew that a dream meant his doom. And yet he felt no fear, for this was Lorien, where no evil could come. He looked around and saw a figure clad in white walking towards him.

It was Queen Galadriel. She wore a white robe that shimmered with pearls and tiny diamonds, and a hood covered her golden head. Seeing him, she stopped and putting back the hood from her shining hair she smiled and said;
‘Do not be afraid, Dreamer. The doom foretold no longer has any power to harm you, not here in Lorien, or now, before the breaking of all things, good or evil, and their making again in a new age, good or evil.’

The Lady turned and walked slowly down a flight of ancient mossy steps. The Dreamer felt his footsteps following her, till they both stood in a sunken bower. Between them was a stone table, and on it, a wide round silver basin. Galadriel smiled again and said;
‘You are baffled and confused. You wonder how a dream can speak to you! Cease your wonder; I am the Lady Galadriel, Mistress of the Golden Wood, and this is my Mirror. Listen now to my words!’

Then the Lady turned away and took up a tall silver pitcher. From this she poured out water into the basin. The surface foamed and swirled, then grew still. Galadriel closed her eyes, breathed on the surface and said;

‘In my Mirror I see many things and which will come to pass and which will not even I do not know. But to mortals such as you is given the gift to see in dreams things which will come to pass. The Elves, although wise beyond humankind, do not sleep and so cannot enter that world of dreams.

Even so was the dream of the Halfling and the reforged sword given not to me or to Elrond the wise, but to the mortal sons of Denethor the Steward, even though they did not understand what the dream meant. It is my wish now, on the eve of the changing of all things, to speak through your dream to my Elves, to the Black Company and to your leaders Callanach, Crionna, Rosc and Liofa...’

An Bruadair gazed at the Queen of the Golden Wood and listened. Looking away from him, Galadriel stretched out her hand. Her robe fell back, revealing on one finger of her hand a great ring with a shining white stone.
‘Behold Nenya, the ring of Adamant!’ she cried. ‘This ring is my care and my strength, and with its power I have built and defended my realm of Lorien. But like all the rings of power, even those given to the Elves, it is in thrall to the Great Ring. If Sauron’s ring is destroyed, all that I built with this ring too will fade...’

Galadriel looked straight at An Bruadair
‘With that power I saved the life of your leader Callanach and revived the strength and hope of the Black Company. What will happen to him and to Liofa and his company when it fades I do not know. But neither do I know what my power had to do with the black fortune of your company, and its ill-starred search for vengeance. Perhaps some dark thought of mine sent you out on that quest of the black banner. I do not know, even as still I do not know what part my power played in the fall of Boromir.’

At this name Galadriel paused, and gazed down into the Mirror for some moments. Her face was lined with regret and sadness and for a moment she almost seemed mortal. Then she looked up and went on;

‘Tomorrow, perhaps, all will be revealed. To Callanach bear a message of courage, and to the Black Company, of hope. To my Elves, I would say; to your friends, mortal no less than of Elvish kind stay true, for loyalty is the greatest weapon good has against evil. And if tomorrow Death should find you, one or even all of you, remember that even Elves may die, but the bonds of love endure beyond the circles of the world....’

Outside the Black Pavilion, restless and uncomfortable in his Mordor armour, Marfach waited for The Steward of the Tower of Barad-dur, the Mouth of Sauron, to appear and take his place at the head of Sauron’s army.

In the hour since dawn the area around the pavilion had been transformed; gone was the circle of mountain trolls and Easterlings that had guarded the black tent of their lord. Instead a great legion of uruks, trolls and men stood waiting for orders. Beyond their ranks an even greater army was surging North to the plain of Udun, dividing up as it went into many streams that flowed round obstructions like some great filthy tide. As they passed the orcs and uruks eyed Marfach malevolently, and he glared back. Suddenly a voice spoke at his side.
‘Still alive, Elf? They must have something even more tasty planned for you!’

Marfach turned and saw Uafas, the Uruk which had brought him into Mordor, standing beside him. In the presence of this hideous army, Marfach was almost glad to see him. He had fought so long beside the creatures of Mordor that he knew by instinct which had been born evil and which had been warped to evil. Marfach said to Uafas;
‘What were you before you became a beast?’
Uafas turned his leathery face and small yellow eyes to Marfach and after a pause he replied in a voice devoid of irony or regret;
‘I was a man.’

Just then the flap of the Black Pavilion was thrown back and The Mouth of Sauron strode out. At once a ripple of apprehension ran through the army, and a black clad servant hastened to lead forth a tall skeletal horse clad in armour of black and silver stamped with the emblem of an eye. The Mouth himself was armed for war in mail of black and a tall spiked helm that covered his eyes and face but left his mouth exposed. It had the effect of making him look like a dead man in a shroud. The hidden eyes scanned the scene and the ghastly mouth split into a satisfied smile, revealing long yellow teeth. Then the Mouth saw Marfach and his smile widened even more.

‘Marfach! Loyal servant of The Eye and my personal squire for the today’s great battle! I trust you are keeping safe that with which I entrusted you last night?’
‘I have it safe.’ replied Marfach shortly. He bent down and gently and with great reverence he lifted from the ground a pile of what looked like rags, but which were in fact Frodo’s ragged hobbit coat and waistcoat, and a gleaming handful of what seemed to be silver scales. This was Bilbo’s mithril coat, given to Frodo in Rivendell.

So great was the power of the Elves that even here in the darkness of Mordor the mithril shone like captured starlight, and just gazing on it gave Marfach’s torn soul some healing. But even through his iron visor its soft sheen seared the eyes of the Mouth. He jerked a hand up as if to protect himself and snarled;
‘Keep it hidden, slave! Do not reveal it until I order you to do so!’

With great care and a little smile of satisfaction, Marfach gently wrapped the mithril in Frodo’s worn hobbit coat. As he did so he glanced at the sword which was also amongst the bundle, and at once he froze where he stood.

For this was not the Elven blade called Sting that Marfach remembered Frodo carrying when he met the Ringbearer in Ithilien. Marfach was a warrior who had an eye for such things, and he remembered that Frodo had borne an Elvish blade, but his companion Sam had carried at his side a blade of ancient Numenor, taken, although Marfach did not know it, from a barrow-wight’s hoard.

Now, looking closer, Marfach saw that the sword in the captured bundle was not the Elvish weapon Sting, but a blade engraved with the runes of Arnor. It was Sam’s sword.

‘Maybe they captured them both!’ thought Marfach, ‘But if so, where is Frodo’s sword?’

Hope beat against his heart like a captured bird. Although it grieved him to think of Frodo’s loyal servant Sam caught and tormented by the forces of Mordor, at least it gave him hope that the Ringbearer might have escaped to fulfil his quest. However it did not explain how the mithril coat had fallen into the hands of the Enemy....

Just then Marfach became aware that The Mouth, and Uafas, were staring curiously at him. Summoning all his powers, Marfach shielded his mind from outside scrutiny. He must fend off the enemy’s probing and protect his thoughts of Frodo. But the Mouth still suspected something. His eyeless helmet was turned towards Marfach for a long time. At last he said;
‘If you are plotting is a thought to distract you!’

The Mouth turned and at a wave of his hand a great battalion of red and gold-clad Easterling warriors stood to attention. The Mouth said;
‘Your old friends from the West even now are striking camp – the last camp they will ever make – and are marching North to the Gates. Long before they reach them, this host of Easterlings will take up position behind the hills of the Morannon. Then at my signal, your friends will fall between the army of Mordor on the South and the army of Rhun on the North. There will be no escape!’

Marfach’s red eyes glinted behind the visor of his black helmet as he looked over the ranks of Easterlings. He could understand how orcs, spawned by Sauron, would fight for the Dark Lord. But how men could bring themselves to fight for demons he could not understand. Truly, there was evil in the world outside of Mordor...

‘And if you are impatient, I can give you a taste of the bloodshed to come!’ said The Mouth. ‘On this day of days, you will have the honour of the first kill!’

The Mouth snapped his steel-clad fingers and a trio of Easterling warriors dragged a crumpled figure out of their ranks and flung him on the ground in front of Marfach.

The guards backed away and the figure struggled to stand up. Marfach looked closely and realised with horror that the captive was dressed in the tunic of a Ranger, although his grey-green cloak had been torn off him and he was covered in dust and dried blood.

The man’s sword and sword belt, his dagger, yew bow and quiver had all been taken from him. His seven-pointed star brooch, the distinctive badge of the Rangers of the North, had been pulled off and now adorned the breastplate of the Easterling captain, as a victory token. The man held one arm close to his side, and Marfach guessed it was broken. He saw too that there was a long gash in the Ranger’s leather tunic and fresh blood welled from the tear. Then the Ranger raised his head to glare back at Marfach through his long matted hair, and despite the cuts and bruises on his face Marfach recognised him.
‘Seolta!’ he said to himself.

The man’s blue eyes, even more vivid in his dirty face, widened momentarily as he too recognised Marfach. But although Seolta remembered The Red Dragon, he had no memory of how he had come to be wandering in the wilderness before the Morannon, where orc scouts had found him. He only knew that the Elves of Lorien had given him their special care in trying to cure him of the wound he had taken from a Mordor blade. But Elves make poor jailers, and sometime in the night the orc poison still coursing through Seolta’s veins drove him to rise and slip out of the camp and walk towards the Black Gates, where he was quickly seen and captured.

Marfach did not know that this was the Ranger who had led The Black Company at the battle of Helm’s Deep. But to see any of the Free peoples taken and brought into Mordor grieved him beyond measure. As he was gazing at Seolta, he heard the rasp of a sword being drawn. He looked around and saw that the Mouth of Sauron was holding out to him his own long, black blade, hilts first.

‘Marfach, most loyal servant of Sauron...’ said the Mouth with a hideous smile
‘ me the honour of using my sword....’